Art/less Disadvantage

My mother was an artist: lively pen and ink portraits, wry and whimsical cartoons and sculpture in clay and wood. She held exhibitions and sold her pieces. Her wake featured some of her best works. My grandmother produced remarkable charcoal landscapes and haunting portraits too. My aunt, I believe, had talent with water colours.

Experiments in water colours. Sometime last century.

3D experiments in water colours. Sometime last century.

The boxes of art supplies lurk in the garage. Inherited canvasses and oil painted spattered boards stored alongside everything I bought: pencils, and paints and ring-bound sketch books and hard cover ones. Their thick, rough, white pages hold me in their thrall. Mostly they are blank.

Water colour doesn't make up for the fact I can't draw very well.

Water colours: they don’t make up for the fact I never mastered drawing properly.

While I don’t miss the lack of air conditioning, I do long for the summers sitting in the tiny lounge of my Nan’s famed Hollyhock Cottage that artists still like to sit in front of. Inside away from the sun, I painted imaginary landscapes opposite the dead 19th century grate while Nan knitted as she watched the monotonous back and forth of the Australian Open tennis, punctuated only by the intermittent profanity offered by John McEnroe.

A break? Please enjoy this Italian video featuring the artless but dexterous ability of Mr McEnroe’s performance against my favourite tennis player Henri Leconte. Everyone else in school liked Stefan Edberg. I preferred this French guy.

Anyway. The action is not about tennis.

Slightly more recently, I miss those rowdy nights on campus, painting psychedelic abstract pages one after the other, some for me, some for friends. I thought it’d keep thinking at bay. It didn’t work. It was an unforced error to imagine art works like that – at least for everyone.

Some-when between then and now even that much drifted away on the ebb and flow of every day decisions and unexplored dreams. Art didn’t follow through. The water colours dried, cracked and crumbled in their brittle plastic pallets. I know fault lies entirely in my court.

Today, as my new charcoal pencils break into powdery bits as I sharpen them, I wonder did art leave me or did I leave art?

Was it a passing shot? Can it be a let?

The deciding point? Perhaps I can reset the baseline or break back, or find the centre mark, or sweet spot or reach for another tennis analogy to complete whatever I’m trying to say.

Perhaps there’s time to unlearn what Terry Pratchett derided as the “limits of the possible.”

I’ve not yet mastered my genes.

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Doctor Who: the boy friend code

Steven Moffat has gone on about how The Caretaker is a return to the ideas of The Lodger, because The Doctor. Whatevs. This episode had more likenesses with Vampires of Venice, Amy’s Choice, The Big Bang and A Good Man Goes to War with Amy and Rory and with Rose and Mickey with Rose, Father’s Day and The Age of Steel. Because Danny. We also know this episode is about relationships because The Doctor mentions River.

Whaddya mean it was an alien living with us?

Whaddya mean it was an alien living with us?

The new Rory

Danny Pink is the new Rory. He comes complete with recent military service, only with, I assume, the British Defence Force rather than as a Legionary in Provincia Britannia. Like Rory, he is a quick study in motive and personality, seeing in The Doctor the kind of military leaders he served under. Those he notes, were the men who lit the fire he rescued people from. He, like Rory, sees how people are inspired to be and do more because of The Doctor. He also, like Rory, sees the danger this poses. However, unlike Rory it is not because of his association with The Doctor or because he existed 2000 years as plastic, but because he has lived that kind of life before, as a soldier.

RORY WILLIAMS: You know what it’s dangerous about you? It’s not that you make       people take risks, it’s that you make them want to impress you. You make it so they         don’t want to let you down. You have no idea how dangerous you make people to       themselves when you’re around.

It’s partly due to the pace of the story telling and the age at when Danny is introduced. He is more confident about himself and about Clara, more mature and upfront in his expectations (like for honesty) than Rory – at least at the start. Danny in The Caretaker is a nice contrast to earlier episodes when Clara and Danny suffer through their first tentative conversations.

Awkward conversations over, time for action.

Awkward conversations over, time for action.

Danny not Mickey

Danny is a little reminiscent of Mickey Smith, but without the fear and the need to overcome the belief he is Mickey the Idiot, because Danny knows already that he is not useless. Mickey only learned that during his story arc. However, like Mickey, Danny sees the potential for hurt as Clara is pulled between the two lives she leads.  He too risks being abandoned because he is unable to compete with The Doctor and the entire universe. But I suspect that won’t be the case.

Where are the parents? 

We see how Danny (as Rupert) is again a parent-less child, like Mickey, and can surmise how this drives his desire to do good: serve in the armed forces to dig wells, to teach. We know that Clara has seen him at his most vulnerable and lonely in an entirely different way to how Rose grew up with and took Mickey for granted.

The invisibility watch may indicate Danny isn’t going on every trip. Perhaps he will inform Clara’s actions and choices with The Doctor from afar – in invisible ways. Perhaps he will centre her, or even ground her, at school, in the day to day-ness of life. Perhaps other things entirely are in store because he is not without useful skills. Those coupled with his antagonism towards The Doctor could make interesting journeys.

It seems too Danny is the man of action and this is balanced with Clara’s super power of finding the right words. Maybe together it’ll work.

She cares so we have to

The title also is a double take. We are told this explicitly by Danny he wants to take care of Clara. We know too that Clara is the carer for The Doctor, and Danny sees how The Doctor cares for Clara. If she can’t keep her lives separate, she must be honest, with Danny, but also with The Doctor, because both can be hurt.

Speaking about caring. I wonder about friendships. Can any companion really have friends that are not in the know? Because people usually have at least one confidant. Does Clara have a friend? In fact does any companion?

So the Boy friend Role, or the Companion to the Companion role, is about adding a further perspective to how The Doctor and his life should be viewed. Where companions see fun and adventure, the Boy friend sees the danger and questions how it fits with the rest of their lives and they must point this out to The Doctor and us. This occurs again, because the set up of the entire program can be seen as the tension between the universe and Earth. The Doctor and the world, or if you like, fantasy and life. The companions have a doctor, but their boyfriends provide a dose of reality.

The challenge for the writer is to make each new character different from previous characters in similar situations. Man meets alien, must cope with the news and the truth of the life of his girlfriend, deal with inexplicable new dangers and generally run around and either fail entirely (like in Dalek in 2005) or be completely involved, like Rory, or won over eventually, like Mickey. Maybe there is a different way for Danny. The differences will be found in writing the personality and in how the actor plays it.

MacGuffin

Forget entirely the ready-made CBBC robot toy MacGuffin. It wasn’t the point. The point was it gave an opportunity for Danny, Champion of the World, to prove his worth, not to The Doctor or to Clara, but to us.

And it did one other thing. It provided another lead to the long-term arc. Missy, it was intimated, is god. If there is an afterlife and it turns out to be bunches of aseptic white offices, I’m gonna want my money back. So no not sure where this is, but it’ll be interesting to find out.

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Doctor Who: Blue Steal

I was going to write a post about my adventures the other Saturday. And then I was going to review the Doctor Who episode Time Heist. Then everything sat in my brain for a few days. So I’m going to write about both-ish

Mainly because they involve heists, bank vaults, rare and precious things in a museum, time travel and starting a day doing one thing and spending much of the day running around doing something else.

Episode formula:

Time Heist = Mutant Hustle + Mission Impossible + Alien Inception x (Time + Eyebrows). 

Obvious innit? I mean we’re still waiting for the episode about vacillation consuming gremlins but this was ok too.

AMY: Don’t tell me. This isn’t Earth that isn’t a real house.And inside lives a goblin who feeds on indecision.

Any monster you like Mr Moffat, but not these again. Nooooo.

But it’s more than it’s very solid SF ideas. It’s…

More big questions

What do we take when we steal things? The Doctor breaks into the inner sanctum of the Bank of Karabraxos to break out the Teller, who is a hostage, and his partner, and to offer payments to Saibra and Psi, at the behest of Old Karabraxos, who regrets everything she did as Young Karabraxos. They are stealing back regret.

On the surface it’s a response to a Call to Action in the Hero’s Journey. To steal something and get away with it for The Architect. On the surface my wallet was lifted out of my bag at Flinders Street Station concourse. Simple premises that set the stage. But things must align for events to unfold as they do. Script writers can use tricks to make plots align, like work backwards using time travel. Real life is not like that. Unless, actually, there is an Architect.

The Doctor gets a call, assembles a crew, learns what needs to be done, designs a plan, stakes out the bank and sets up what they will need later, then jumps, wipes their memories and fulfils the plan. This is told backwards.

Similarly, I had to be at the station to get home. The kid had to be there to take my wallet. The girls at the station who saw this kid take my wallet had to be there to rough the kid up, get back the wallet and take it to Lost and Found. I had to find Lost and Found and get the story from the Metro staff. As a series of events it seems almost to tidy.

SHERLOCK HOLMES: Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Arthur Conan Doyle.

So as Conan Doyle says what happened to me was improbable. But like Douglas Adams, I prefer the impossible:

DIRK GENTLY: The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

Basically, my day demonstrates how the impossible makes a better and more convincing story than the merely implausible.

To start, the day was full of unusual juxtapositions. Literally, I had just come from inside a bank vault only to be robbed. I went from looking at 12th century manuscripts in the Old Melbourne Mint, which is now the Hellenic Museum. It was cosy, dark and full of impossibly valuable books and silverware behind plexiglass. Then I time travelled – all travel is through time – and within a second my day is transformed from one of wonder and sunshine and security, into panic and tears and running around trying to get help from non-existent police in their large and abandoned police station in a big shiny and useless box.

Old Victorian Mint bank vault in what is now the Hellenic Museum. Choc full of ancient devices for time travel...called books.

Old Victorian Mint bank vault in what is now the Hellenic Museum. Choc full of ancient devices for time travel…called books.

Time Thief

Turns out my thief was reasonably talented, but not quick enough for a Dickensian villain. And those girls, upending assumptions and getting to be heroes for a day – how are they changed and how have they changed others by their actions? Metro staff certainly were cheered by the fact they realised teens aren’t all terrible. I am happy because I got my stuff back. That kid learned a lesson not to underestimate girls or crowds.

Any way, getting by is difficult enough and any thief could be a hero or a punk boy who wants to attempts something for kicks, or out of desperation.

Similarly, the Doctor’s adventures mean Clara is rushing about any-when while dealing with the everyday world every-when else. It’s high stakes in space and tension at work (in The Caretaker). Some days are just like that I suppose. Drama one minute, museum visits the next.

I can’t help thinking that kid stole my wallet, but he really stole an hour of my life, while those quick thinking girls returned my wallet and gave me a story. If we relate this back to Who, the problem for Clara is she is getting amazing experiences – stories even – but who is she to share her anecdotes with? I foresee Mr Pink becoming more involved.

Playing Those Mind Games

This episode is reminiscent of The God Complex with a similar-ish Minotaur creature in the Teller who again feeds on mind-stuff. This time the mind-stuff was guilt, last time it was faith. In the end yet another monster is not the monster after all.  Just cos you look scary and are responsible for killing people doesn’t mean you are bad per se. Moffat has made it clear that monsters in Who have human faces. Very often the Agents of Bad are severe disciplinarian-type women in business suits: Karabraxos, Madam Kovarian, Miss Kizlet, Matron Cofelia and Missy (what’s with MK?).

So, once again, the scary creature is a victim – a prisoner in a kind of ‘endless shifting maze’ bank vault prison. Once again too, they are enmeshed in a love story reunion recalling that of the scary creatures of Hide, who were also separated and mistaken for being the villains, when all they were doing was yearning for each other.

Love is difficult for monsters. Speaking of which…

Mind Palace Architecture 

When I wrote about Sherlock I wrote: The meanest things are the truth, because the really, really vilest you can be is about yourself. And nobody, not even Sherlock, knows you like yourself. The Doctor, as we know from The Dream Lord of Amy’s Choice, doesn’t have a high regard for himself. All he remembers is that he hates The Architect. He doesn’t often say that word, but it’s interesting he uses it, and because he uses it, he works out The Architect is in fact himself. Another neat little Moffat Loop within a time shifted bank robbery.

In the end The Doctor is not The Architect, but Sherlock. He solves the case that he doesn’t recall taking on and demonstrates no one can trick The Doctor, not even himself.

Identity Among Others 

I may have mentioned, in everything I’ve written about Doctor Who, that it’s about identity. Time Heist doesn’t let us down this time either.

Overcoming our fear of the Other and stuff and our hate for ourselves is one of the conceits of this episode. It asks what might human look like in the future, how will we change and what may stay the same?

Other questions occur. Like: Who are you, when as Saibra, you’re a mutant who is everyone? Who are you as Tech-enhanced Psi when you can delete everyone from your memory? Who can you trust if you only trust yourself (as your clone) and your clones fail? Finally, when all is done, who you gonna call (sorry couldn’t resist), when you regret everything.

Mostly, this episode is about how humans reflect each other – literally as Saibra demonstrates and metaphorically. We can become, very quickly, people who sacrifice their lives for strangers, as Psi seemingly does for Clara.

Shape shifters represent the fiction of the outward persona, the story we make up about ourselves, and the possible frictions between that story and the reality underneath. They are numerous in folk tales and in speculative fiction. And there are characters who can’t touch or suffer consequences of touching (like Gwen Raiden in Angel). This could represent anything from the separateness of individuality to the consequences of or taboos around sex. With characters like Psi though, they embody the dream of easy learning – but so to demonstrate the price it of easy forgetting.

Without specific memories Clara and The Doctor demonstrate that we revert to types established through repetition: The Doctor as cranky leader, Clara as caring follower. Which leads us to…

Memory and Volition

Unlike on Starship UK in The Beast Below where the Doctor was angry with Amy for deciding to forget what she knew, The Doctor and Clara go along with the forgetting until he works out how to remember. I think more could have been made about their lack of choice in fulfilling the bank job and what it meant that they had no guilt about what they were doing. If you have no guilt, what wouldn’t you do? Similarly, more could have been made of The Teller’s lack of choice by comparison.

Speaking about volition, it’s very difficult not to think. You especially can’t think when you’re full of fear and being shouted at not to think while being pursued by a brain consuming guilt monster. #justsaying

Other issues: 

  • The thieves could willy nilly run around and just push through conveniently large grates in walls of rooms full of plot enhancing important stuff. Yes. Safest bank in the universe?
  • Why do future banks look so, um, cheap?
  • Does it mean anything that the entire ep felt a bit 1930s? From the Egyptian bank vault to the heist caper comedy stylings…and the hair…
  • If the Teller feeds on guilt how can he tell between the usual guilty secrets and bank specific ones? Wouldn’t the clones, like Delphox, have bank related guilt? Also you can feel guilty without being guilty. Does the bank pay compensation for false positives?

The Good Stuff

  • Liked the breath analysers and identity scanning. In fact all the tech was good.
  • Liked the vault lock room.
  • Liked The Doctor working a crowd and his gang. I liked Saibra and Psi and how they were recruited for their unique skills and because of the pay offs for them.
  • Liked that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor was very Tom Baker-ish in the vault with the Teller.
  • Liked The Doctor’s one liners – shut uppity up is very Malcolm Tucker-y as others have noted. And his line about calories on the Tardis was priceless for the look on Clara’s face.
  • Like the injector things that turned out to not be suicide drugs but transfer relays of some kind. Nice relationship to all the other episodes where characters are ostensibly killed disappeared only to turn up in Missy’s ‘Heaven’.
  • Liked the Teller, he was a real threat and dangerous. Clara mistaking his victim’s brain for tears just added to the vibe.

Conclusions? 

A bit like my day, this episode is one from which I can draw no conclusions. What was bad turned out to be not so much, who was an enemy ended up with my pity, what was upsetting was all part of a plan (?).

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Doctor Who: Chalk and Talk

This looping story line thing that is evidenced by Listen, is definitely a thing. Jenna Louise Coleman called it the Moffat Loop and she should know.  And over at iO9 there is a succinct summation, putting it all down to The Doctor basically inventing a monster and letting the logic of that play out through loop after closed loop. In that deterministic assessment, it is pretty bleak. Not as bleak as the Fires of Pompeii, but pretty bleak for Clara and Danny Pink.

There are a lot of what ifs in this story. The Doctor’s big hypothesis about his monster, and his one about fear, the what ifs between Danny and Clara and the what ifs asked by Orson. That all have to do about the creation of identity. These are my first thoughts:

  • The child who believes in things under the bed who becomes the soldier he dreams about.
  • The soldier without a weapon who digs holes to save communities.
  • Of course The Doctor would return to his childhood if he was going to use The Moment. If he was killing all the children on Gallifrey he would first destroy his own childhood.
  • Characters are created, but not within a void. They are made of all sorts of stuff.  Just like real humans.
  • We create ourselves.
  • We are never alone. Not Madame De Pompadour. Not us.
  • We are shaped by others, even if, or perhaps especially if, we are not aware of it.
  • The child alone in The Home, Rupert, creates Danny Pink, the soldier teacher. Who can say if he would have become the person he became without Clara and The Doctor’s influence?
  • What moved the chalk?

All of the above is pretty obvious yeah? Because of the loops?

So, if I am to add anything new, (which in the last post I explained was almost always a fool’s errand – but that has never stopped me) I will focus on Clara. For all The Doctor’s big questions it is Clara who has more agency than initially suspected, even in a destiny trap.

Clara has been the antidote to the Doctor’s infected timeline, a kind of girlfriend in various episodes (The Crimson Horror), his student in some places (as in The Rings of Akhaten), and his teacher in Into the Dalek. Clara showed him which Tardis to steal, and became his guide and conscience when facing the annihilation of Gallifrey in the barn with The Moment, and for a brief exchange, his daughter in Listen.

About Listen.

If the Tardis shows Clara Danny Pink’s time line because it is linked to her own, then, with the Tardis showing Clara The Doctor’s time line, it similarly indicates a link to her own time line. With the Tardis making the physical connection, Clara finds the words to make it a fact. In that moment, by his bed, she is more than a healer or companion to the child who will eventually be The Doctor, but a mother.

As his parent, Clara becomes the agency for his creation, or rather the creation of his persona as The Doctor. And it’s not all about quoting his own words and thus allowing him to create himself. No. Because Clara doesn’t just  repeat his words, she adds her own. She, in fact, implants the notion of a companion in this scared little boy’s head. She invents her own role, because of the role she is in.

That last bit bears repeating because it’s kind of lost in the magic of that particular aha moment. In speaking to the boy in the barn, she invents the concept of companion as familiar to The Doctor. That’s a bit of a big deal!

However Clara keeps doing stuff like this, because one, she keeps getting the opportunity to, and two, she has the right words at the right time. Not Rose, Donna, Martha, not even Amy, had the right words with the right timing. This is her super power, or defining trait.

Clara’s use of language is able to:

- Transform the monsters under the bed of nightmares into companions.

- She is his conscience in The Name of The Doctor, giving him pause to stop before using The Moment.

- Convince The Doctor of a Dalek’s humanity as the Oswald version of herself in Asylum of the Daleks.

- Convince The Doctor of a Dalek’s ability to change, in Into the Dalek.

- Find the one perfect word (Pond) to inspire The Doctor once more when the Nanny version of her is quizzed by Madam Vastra.

- Hold herself in check to reason with robots intent on using her for parts in Deep Breath.

- She tells The Doctor to do something, and he does it, thus discovering her authority as an adult and with The Doctor, in Listen.

- She helps children become, by speaking and also listening, with empathy, wit and understanding, in Rings of Akhaten, The Snowmen, Nightmare in Silver and Listen etc.

In this way we can see Clara is a lot of chalk and talk as a teacher and as a companion. Somehow she manages to hit on the right words, find the right questions, make The Doctor shut up at the right moments, to inspire, calm, soothe, save and direct. She’s not an epic action hero like River, she’s not loud to hide her self-consciousness like Donna, she is not outspoken like Martha, or self-assured like Amy, she is her own self. And she knows it, in her confession to Danny at the restaurant, she reveals her power is also her flaw and that is because of her experiences and perspective as a time traveller.

There is a kind of irony then in her communication with Danny as it is the only time she doesn’t have the words. In this she is the opposite of Emma Grayling in Hide, who was all about detecting and conveying emotional energy: People like me… sometimes, we get our signals mixed up. We think people are feeling the way we want them to feel… you know, when they are special to us. Clara can read the signals, but this is the only time the signals she reads trips up her language:

Failure to Communicate

Failure to Communicate

In fact, Listen is a reflection of the episode Hide. There are other episode connections, too, but Hide is important. Right down to: running towards a difficult to detect suspected presence in the midst of fear; a supernatural atmosphere and travelling through time to find an answer linked to experimental time travel that results in awkward family encounters. And instead of The Doctor setting out to find out more about Clara as in Hide, Clara – and everyone else – finds out more about The Doctor! Furthermore, if these stories are opposite, then the ‘monster’ in Listen is real, because the ‘monster’ and ‘ghost’ of Hide were not monsters and ghosts at all.

Basically, these perfect hiding beings, are real, like the Vashta Nerada. Just because Clara becomes the nightmare under the bed, it doesn’t mean she is alone. Generally speaking too, nursery rhymes are only ever written about real stuff.

The Real Monster

The Real Monster

As for Clara, Hide was a nice tense episode and we can see her growth from then until Listen. She is more confident, more able to take charge and find solutions, but still able to ask the right questions and still able to shush The Doctor for his absence of sensitivity. And it is good too to see what The Doctor’s character retains. Still bossy, still immune to the sensitivities of others (like psychics or kids), and still willing to risk life and limb by jumping into the unknown.

Hide and Listen then, together complete a neat set of correspondences and juxtapositions that are either entirely deliberate or completely random, but definitely inspired.

If Clara demonstrates the power of speech or the right words, then she is also voicing, as subtext, the importance of stories, and of story tellers, and so to, the importance of writers. Without a writer, Clara is without form and function. She is powerless without the words written for her.

All of the above is why I don’t get those people who can’t find anything at all redeeming in the writing or story lines of Steven Moffat or the other writers of his series. They forget that stories involving events and people are braided, and intertwine. This is especially important because with stories involving time travel these braided arcs can twine backwards, forwards and sideways. Just because they take paying attention to, and are actively disorienting, doesn’t mean they are not internally and emotionally consistent as stories.

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Stories: bigger on the inside

Analyse this? 

I came across a fairly thorough psychological interpretation of Harry Potter via FB recently. The page linking to it had a lot of comments – people were either upset as it had ‘ruined’ the books or they were angry that someone had ‘bothered’.  Whatever the complaint, there was so much entitlement, or ownership. I understand people invest in stories, so don’t want their emotional connections sullied, or they don’t want their ego bruised if their own view of a story is somehow challenged.

Yet.

I mounted a defence as best I could along multiple lines: if another’s person’s critique of a thing ruins it, the thing and you were not perhaps as tight as you thought. Or your understanding of the text is not as robust as you reckon, or basically, the book or song or painting is not as good as you imagined. Additionally, we bother to analyse stuff because we humans analyse stuff all day every day. We wonders, for instance, why siblings ‘borrowed’ my transistor radio (sigh) as a kid, and what some people see in their partners, or find accountancy entertaining or why there are Twihards.

We speculate about the motivations of people – real or imagined. It’s ok if you don’t want to speculate about characters, but in the end, we’re all stories, and therefore we are characters we make up in our heads and present to the world.

Furthermore, many of the comments confused the meaning of canon and criticism. To be clear. What I do here is mostly examine canon (if there is one), by adapting techniques appropriate to literary and televisual criticism. This is secondary to canon, in fact it can’t exist without the primary substance called canon. Canon is considered to be the product of an effort to create something original and have it accepted as authentic. Of course, I could apply criticism to fan fic – which is not canon – but I don’t think anyone wants that.

But all the above is a kind of agreed nonsense and others explain it better than me, but suffice it to say Shakespeare wasn’t all het up about originality. As that link goes on to explain the major concern for literate poet types who cared about this stuff  700 years ago was the: one distinction, between the matiere, which was the source material, and the san, which was their treatment of it.

So I suppose as a critic I am messing about with Who matiere, and in this process creating san, but of a different order. Not so much retelling the story, but explaining it, because I think our ability to ‘read’ symbols, understand analogies and appreciate the depth of our cultural heritage and how it’s inflected by certain writers is not as widespread or common as it once was. It is, in fact, a speciality.

And, that is why there are Harry Potter literalists who decry reading a text any other way than their own. They don’t get metaphor. They only accept stories as ‘made up’ because they can’t see how it engages with a wider culture or can lead us into understanding more than just the actions of a boy wizard. Or an alien.

You Who?

Thus, I will persist with the analysing about Doctor Who.  I don’t do it to take something from you that is yours. Or to diminish something that people love. It doesn’t mean I can’t write about other programs or books or films and sometimes I do, but Who lends itself to analysis because it’s long running, its characters are myriad and ever transforming, while the plots deal with any or even all time periods and difficulties. Beyond that I keep going back to it. Other things fade away, Who hasn’t. In short, unlike much of popular culture, it is not just glossy packaging: it does what it says on the box.

No really, why Who?

I could write about Arrow and the difficulties in living a double life, but that’s covered with companions in Who. For instance Clara lives an everyday school teacher non-Doctor life in contrast to her secret-ish time travelling. Sometimes this is difficult and other times this is easy. It was the same with the Ponds, who battled the pull of  a ‘normal’ work-and-friends kind of life against the lure of adventure and it was the same with Rose and Donna, who wanted to be with The Doctor, but also had family considerations. In addition, The Doctor is living multiple lives. Mostly he ‘pretends’ to be human, he refuses to discuss much of his past unless absolutely forced to, and he has duties and obligations and rules and often he hides these or runs away from them, like our Arrow friend, in the face of great loss and hardship. The Doctor does what he does because he has done it for so long, but it was, as far as we know, a choice first.

I could also write about sexual tension between the Hero and the Bright Young Assistant in Arrow but again, Doctor Who has it in spades. This program constantly negotiates and redefines roles and the relationships between Hero and Companion whether it is love interest Rose, long-lost love Sarah Jane, pining-rebound-non-Rose Martha, friend Donna or wannabe/not wannabe Clara – all within the confines of a ‘family friendly’ program.

Of course I could write about the actors, and looky what we have here with Arrow. Laurel Lance’s ‘Mom’ – the mad woman who believes her daughter is alive, and is right, but doesn’t know it. Not to mention Malcolm Merlyn (Malcolm – bad in the Latin) the anti-Robin Hood.

Bad in the Latin!

Bad in the Latin! Awesome in Everything!

Or I could delve into the Star Trek films and explore how reboots reshape and retell stories, but again, Doctor Who is all over it. In 2005 the TV program was rebooted, and, more importantly, the hero reboots himself every few years anyway and has done for bloomin’ decades. This program, basically, invented the reboot. And not only that, as a time traveller, he could and has in fact, retconned his entire story line and defeated others who have tried.

I could also delve into Star Trek to discuss spin offs and their relationship to the core stories. Again, I can do it with Doctor Who, what with the Sarah Jane shows, the K9 one, and Torchwood, not to mention the films, audio plays, and novels.

I could spend more time writing about the Marvel universe than I have, but each of our Avenging heroes manages to represent aspects of The Doctor, as I previously mentioned. Although Guardians of the Galaxy is a pretty damn funny and entertaining reboot-thing of Firefly + Star Wars and deserves more attention and many more accolades.

More words could be directed towards everything Joss Whedon-y, but having read a lot of stuff over at Tea at the Ford, they’ve had it covered for a long time, although they do cover everything else is well, if only sporadically. But go read.

In time, focus will turn again to Tolkien with the third instalment of The Hobbit, which will bring its own themes to examine. Here be dragons.

Generally Genre

I could write about genre regarding any number of books or films, but Doctor Who makes use of them all. Want horror, with ghosts or zombies? Yep The Doctor has ‘em. Want ‘hard’ SF? Got that too, want space operas, family dramas, dinosaurs, westerns, or serious psychological stories of ‘Othering’, pirates, or modern mystery adventures or alternate universes, battles with Romans, Sherlock-like things, or a crap load of robots, or Victorian steam punk lizards plus comedy? All covered. Want, say, examples of feminist heroines from the 1970s, or explorations of the impact of colonialism, examinations of class, or the impact of war, unregulated healthcare provision or scientific experimentation, unchecked militarism or rampant industrialisation, examinations of organised religion, developing celebrations of diversity, or the dangers of imposed technology? Check, check, check etc.

Rules and Boundaries

Doctor Who, like Arrow or I don’t know, Neighbours, has rules to follow as a program, but unlike them, it has less boundaries. If the Neighbours cast suddenly battle an alien invasion it’s no longer the soap opera it set out to be. If the hero of Arrow suddenly pursues a career in interpretative dance in Canada, it wouldn’t be Arrow. Yet Doctor Who can be an urban family drama (eg any ep featuring the Tylers) or it can be a full on cartoony super-villian program (any ep with The Master) or end up in a Toronto jazz ballet class and still remain itself.  It’s not that Neighbours or Arrow are worse programs, they’re just constrained by genre, as they should be.

For the record, Arrow is pretty good, and I’m fairly certain being Australian means having at least watched some episodes of Neighbours, even if not for a decade.

Anyway, if you find, after all of this, that Doctor Who is the program for you, it is perhaps because, just like the box The Doctor travels in, its stories are always bigger on the inside.

 

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Heroic Codes in Doctor Who

Cooking up a story

Writers are like chefs. They have ingredients: pop culture tropes, personal influences, knowledge of their audience, big themes and little obsessions. They also have recipe rules they can choose to follow or ignore when they cook up a story. They chuck everything into a mixture, have it whiz in their brains for a bit and in the end, whatever comes out ideally tastes of the familiar, yet is new.

Part of the ingredient list for writers is cultural inheritance. A store of legends, myths, characters, themes, expectations and sayings, (like ‘once upon a time’). These change from culture to culture, but if there is such a thing as ‘the West’ or Western culture, surely it could be defined by the breadth of this cultural largesse. Part of its genius is that it incorporates aspects of many cultures (from Sumerian, Gaelic to Ancient Greek) and appropriates many stories and characters (from Cinderella – who is from China – to the miracle birth of the baby Horus).

It’s good to be reminded that just because something feels familiar, or even tired, there are reasons it’s lasted over generations.

So when someone reinterprets Robin Hood I have expectations of a place called Sherwood, of Merry Men, of Maid Marian and how they battle the Big Bad Sheriff of Nottingham because I am familiar, like many of us are, with our shared cultural heritage. This story could happen on a far-flung space station, on a tropical island, or in 1960s New York with a gang of dancing kids battling corrupt dancing judges – but we would still recognise it because of how the characters are drawn, and how the story develops. It is a part of our cultural memory.

Yet, there are also opportunities for depth. Not just to present the old in a new setting, but to explore what it means when we make legends, what it indicates about us that we tell new stories by returning to previous stories.

The Doctor and Flashheart of Sherwood

For all the Lord Flashheart fake laughter, which in itself is significant, this is what Robot of Sherwood is doing. Once more The Doctor is told how people see him. It is not as a good man, it is more than that, as Robin explains, as The Doctor is a hero of the same standing as Robin himself, and as Marian notes, a clever one at that.

This is clever of Mark Gatiss too. He uses his character – a version of Legendary Hero – to affirm the legitimacy of an entirely made up fictional character – The Doctor – as Hero. It’s the writer claiming what he is creating as myth is just as credible and valuable as any other myth.

As the viewer we assent to this because we trust Robin Hood because he is a Hero. Outside of the story, we know there are 50 years of TV episodes, novels, films, audio plays, fan fiction and criticism to back this claim up. Of course The Doctor is a mythic hero. Of course this means he shares a lot in common with Robin Hood, or any one of a number of such beings that are driven to do more and sacrifice more than most mere mortals can achieve.

Heroic Much?

Of course (again) such a TV show must make the Hero more empathetic. In many myths, Heroes don’t often have the luxury of ‘good’ that the rest of us may bask in when we rescue a possum from a car park (for a real life instance). That’s because heroes see the big picture, they’re out before the bulldozers and petitioning governments to stop trees being torn down for those very same car parks in the first place. They are too busy, in short, to sit back and ponder stuff like character development.

To put it another way, Heroes are often difficult to personalise in stories, precisely because their actions are epic, and because every day details are either absent, unflattering or insignificant – they get worn away over the millennia in the retelling, and only the significant stuff remains. This is why fairy tales and folk tales seem generic.

Even if they were once ‘real’ people, Heroes transcend history, even their own. So Robin Hood is a legend, the conflation of folk hero saviour and a bunch of historical figures whose values and deeds are reflective of the desires and needs of the times he represents. That he remains pertinent today says something about both the malleability of stories and the consistency of our requirements in Heroes.

What The Doctor has in all of this, is the benefit of epic Herculean tasks combined with the minutiae of individuality. We get to see details about The Doctor that we don’t know or have forgotten about most other Heroes. This is one benefit of writing for television, but it is also the result of how we like our stories told now and how they are preserved. This is precisely why Robin Hood often grated in this episode – because he was deliberately living like a Heroic figure – all bombast. Yet it was when he was real – when talking about Marian or demanding the truth from Clara – that he became a character we could find empathy for.

This is also true of The Doctor, we feel for him as events unfold, and cheer him on too. This is why the companion is important. Since he is Hero and we are not, we need someone more like us to be a lens through which we can understand and question him. In this way, if The Doctor is a hero to Clara, then he is Hero to us and a more accessible and enticing one than many other Heroes.

Damselling and Courtly Love

If Greek Heroes followed the Homeric Warrior Code, followed even now by many of our pop culture Heroes (just think Batman or even Superman), it is also true the nature of the Heroic has been influenced by other ideals. The notion of the quest has been influenced by the chivalric code, and ideals about knighthood embedded additional features, such as the notion of Courtly Love.

Robin Hood is an interesting example. He is a nobleman, (like all good knights), but is an outlaw. Whether he is actually part of the chivalric period matters less than how he clearly demonstrates the Hero’s Quest is no bar to love, and can even inspire great deeds, as Courtly Love requires, even or especially if, the beloved is separated from the Hero – as with Robin and Marian.

Writers like Gatiss know all of this, which is why Clara is no Damsel in Distress. Her manipulation of the Sheriff is inspired, and her frustration with The Doctor and Robin Hood compelling. I do wish Marian had more to do, but at least she recognised a hero when she saw one.

It was also why this  episode offers an updated Heroic Code, which highlights intellect, technology and cunning over Homeric or even Knightly Warrior values – again made clear in Into the Dalek. Doctor Who’s message is that anyone can be Heroic without weapons and without a Damsel; however, with his reason, grumpiness, and anger this Doctor is reminded there are other motivations in life, like love, even amid the life of quests he chose for himself.

Heroic Fallibility 

Robin demonstrates The Doctor can be brilliant and also wrong. It happens a bit, where the plot is upended and goes in a direction you don’t suspect because The Doctor jumps to conclusions or posits a hypothesis that is demonstrated to be incorrect.

In Robot of Sherwood, sometimes legends prove to be real, although they may be tilting at robotic alien windmills.  Yet, for all his outer confidence, conviction, power and knowledge The Doctor is wrong about Robin, but as Clara notes, also blind to how he is perceived.

All this wrongness is just the overt stuff, and hides how The Doctor every so often subverts his unconscious desires. In the episode The Doctor’s Daughter, we have the Tardis physically taking him somewhere where he can make someone like himself. This happens and he is angry because Jenny is both like him and not like him enough. In the end The Doctor thinks he’s lost her,  because he falsely believes he was too early or too late.

No. He was on time, he just didn’t wait. In this instance, he forgets the Tardis is a part of himself and so, he is where he needs to be at exactly the right time. In this way, The Doctor’s flaw, like so many Heroes, is hubris: excessive pride or a kind of blindness to thinking beyond his own. He questioned the Tardis’  timing and therefore he misses out. In Ancient Greek myth hubris is always punished by Nemesis – in this case ‘losing’ Jenny. But in general The Doctor’s BIG nemesis, or opposite or mirror are the Daleks.

Of course, The Doctor is generally a little more aware than the average Hero – mainly due to the presence of his companions. He even realises how his hubris and defiance lead to the creation of the Daleks as his nemesis. His real punishment, then, is his self-imposed/sometimes not-self imposed exile and loss of home. He is a Hero because he realises he isn’t, punishes himself for failing when he tries and fails and is at his most Heroic when he forgets all of it.

Thus, we can see your most up to the minute writers constantly messing about with some of the most ancient theories – the building blocks even – of Western story telling regarding the formation of character and how heroes are defined.

Pompeii vs Sherwood

Face/Off

Face/Off

What some viewers expected was something about how The Doctor’s intervention creates the event, which therefore creates the legend of Robin Hood, as in Fires of Pompeii, where The Doctor and Donna are forced into a situation where they explode the volcano. This is either unintended irony or entirely deliberate given how Peter Capaldi plays the opposite of what he was with Caecilius. This link to Pompeii is further signalled by the alien beings building all too familiar circuits when and where they shouldn’t be.

However, Robot of Sherwood is opposite to this kind of story logic. In this episode all the myth making has been done and we and The Doctor learn Robin Hood the myth is a creation of himself. Furthermore, The Doctor learns is that he is not alone in striving to be better than he may be in reality and that even if he doesn’t think he is good, he is someone’s Hero.

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Doctor Who & Hamlet: Are we who we say we are?

If you’ve yet to watch the 2014 Doctor Who episodes, then you probably should. Or you can enjoy this song Who Are You by The Who, which posits important questions thematically linked to Doctor Who and this post. Like: Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?). I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?). Tell me, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?).

Please note, the post has nothing to do with a band name, nor are The Who cited because they are British, and finally this has nothing to do with CSI theme songs.

Before getting into discussion, this week we learned Robot of Sherwood has been edited for sensitivity over recent instances of beheadings. This is not a thing I will address in this post, but what we use art to react to in the world and what we change in our work because of it are big questions for creative types.

Any who.

Television, as well as being frivolous fun and a drug for the masses, sometimes gets to ask big questions. The Doctor is Hamlet, when he wants to be, seeing dead people (Amy), conversing with ghosts (In Hide, and with River and the Cybermen), sword fighting (Cybermen with umbrellas), upset about sending people crazy (Martha a bit) and upset at not being able to trust his feelings (with Rose especially) and hanging around with his friends (the Paternoster Gang) because he is gloomy about the death of members of his family (the Ponds/Gallifrey) and the burden of responsibility (Gallifrey/Earth).

Mostly though, The Doctor is Hamlet because he questions things, like the meaning of existence and who he is, and where he belongs, and whether he should do the things he feels he must do, damn the consequences. He spends a lot of time pondering these things and pretending to be ‘crazy’ to avoid confronting his real issues:

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. Or as Florence the internal shape changing alien notices in Smith and Jones: You’re quite the funny man. And yet, I think, laughing on purpose at the darkness. 

Basically, as Matt Smith’s final episode revealed, the title of the program declares the biggest question – with the name of the main character also being part of an interrogative. A question about identity. Is the Doctor a lonely prince doomed to exile? Or he is like a Renaissance Scholar bounded by responsibilities that make the universe seem tiny enough to fit into a walnut? Will he pursue his revenge or seek another way?

So, like Hamlet, in New Who many characters spend a lot of time pretending, or hiding, or acting, being mistaken or becoming, not to mention lying. On one level this is character growth that drives plots and reflects deliberate (or near as deliberate as can be) planning on behalf of the writers. However, there are other things going on.

I mean as The Doctor says about life and space: Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar, Doubt that the Dream Lord is telling the truth.

Hamlet and Who - see it's not just me.

Hamlet and Who – see it’s not just me!

So far, there was a Dalek who was also Oswald. Clara who became a bunch of different people, including Oswald. There were the Gangers – the almost people who became people after a war with, um, people. Part human Daleks. The Krillitanes who took the physiology of others to improve themselves. There are shape shifting aliens pretending to be horses and Queen Elizabeth. There is the sibling without a memory who thought he was an Android, only to discover he was human, and then forgot. Again. There are the robots across the universe rebuilding themselves out of humans and whatever else they can find, and a Robot of Sherwood (love a good pun).  Endless Cybermen with their upgrades. And let’s not forget Rusty the Dalek, turned against his own kind by his remembered epiphany. Now, The Doctor, who is told he is a Good Dalek, questions what sort of person he is, or tries to be.

Thus, a lot like Hamlet:

  • Who asks us to consider who we are, who we think we are and how others see us – eg, whether we are good, heroic or dangerous, whether we are soldiers or civilians, princes or mad men and what we capable of.
  • There is always times for jokes.
  • Who asks us to examine our prejudices, just as The Doctor is often confronted about his own, for instance, in the episode called The Dalek and by Clara again in Into the Dalek – honestly how much does he learn and retain?
  • Who invites us to see how far identity can be constructed. Like cells replaced in bodies, we remake ourselves or are remade by events. In fact, the story is about a man who chose his own name – can’t get any more constructed than that.
  • Who asks us to see this construction of identity as construction, as building in progress, but actually not quite ever ending.
  • Who asks us to realise these identities – constructed or organic – are always in flux. Not just with The Doctor’s regenerations, but everyone. Clara in her incarnations, River who was Melody, who was Mels, Amy who is also Amelia, Rory as nurse and Roman, Rose – shop girl/super hero, Martha, lovelorn Doctor/Unit Scientist/freedom fighter, Donna to DoctorDonna to Donna again. Etcetera ad infinitum.
  • Who also tells us flux doesn’t negate the proposition of an essential you. Even after so much change, in School Reunion Sarah Jane Smith and The Doctor can start from where they left off.

Identity, like life, is about change and coping with it. I know there are worse ways to absorb important lessons about such stuff than by watching a television program. Beats the hell out of watching your own family get de-materialised by aliens, or, like Hamlet, watch your mother be poisoned by your uncle who happened to murder your father.

Lest you think I am not seriously considering the writing involved, I believe writers should examine how language is deployed in the exploration of the continuing and fluid construction of identity. Steven Moffat and other episode writers often do this overtly, thus making it clear we don’t have to rely on Shakespearean iambic pentameters or even subtext, to convey important stuff.

In this way, it’s convenient and telling so many Who characters say exactly what language does. Go writers for not being afraid to discuss words!

Take for example River Song’s speech from A Good Man Goes to War:

Doctor: the word for healer and wise man, throughout the universe. We get that word from you, y’know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forests, the word doctor means mighty warrior.

In the same episode: Amy tells us directly names are important. Since Melody Williams is a geography teacher, while Melody Pond is a superhero.

And while we’re here, let’s sit beside the river and think about names and language. We know, not just from Amy, as we were told as early as The Shakespeare Code, and in Girl in the Fireplace – that names have magic and power and identity attached to them whether they are given or chosen. Rivers are mostly linear phenomena, as are songs – with beginnings, middles and ends. On the other hand, Professor River Song’s existence is the ultimate contrast to her name.

To us and to The Doctor River lives her life backwards, and in a circular fashion. She is the ourobourous. Her name, a translation of the language of the Gamma people, signifies the beginnings of her life in the forests, stands for the record of her adventures, and ends in the Forest of the Dead (The Library), where her entire history is uploaded, just as her diary – paper made out of trees – is catalogued. This River, who cycles through her birth, life, death, regeneration, new life, death, and post death existence, is full of momentum, but unlike rivers and songs and the rest of us, is never quite headed to one final end.

River, the human with multiple names, the warrior-archaeologist-assassin, who pretends to be Cleopatra, and who is Time Lord-like, who swims along a time stream flowing in reverse to The Doctor’s, is the epitome of paradox. Therefore, given her unique perspective rivalled only by The Doctor’s own, she gets to tell it how it is.

Like Father, like Daughter, Rory, the nurse who became a plastic Roman, existed for 2000 years and grew up with his child, also tells The Doctor who he is. In an episode where alien fish disguise themselves as humans, only to be suspected as vampires, Rory identifies attributes of The Doctor. It’s one of my favourite bits of Angry Rory:

You know what it’s dangerous about you? It’s not that you make people take risks, it’s that you make them want to impress you. You make it so they don’t want to let you down. You have no idea how dangerous you make people to themselves when you’re around.

  • So Who, through Rory’s speech, tells us that Who is about learning to see through disguises, to see through faces that change, and mirages and lies, to how people really are. This is what Clara must relearn with the new Doctor.

I only disagree with Rory in that I think The Doctor does know how dangerous he is to his friends. He just needs reminding. He too, is a paradox because companions make him better, and through him his companions become more than they perhaps ever would have been, but there are risks. But we all know, The Doctor is worth the monsters.

Then there are characters invited to say who they think people are. So The Doctor asks Clara whether he is a good man.

et, even guest characters get to have a go:

Rita: Why is it up to you to save us? That’s quite a God Complex you have there.

Takes a doctor to know a Doctor right? I mean, shouldn’t all doctors believe they can save us? Even characters without their own dialogue get to comment on who The Doctor is, as again, with The God Complex:

An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift.

Yeah, right in the feels. What we see in others is what we fail to identify in ourselves.

Speaking of the shifting maze though, the Tardis too tells us about function and name, especially in the Doctor’s Wife, where their non-linear conversation turns on what The Doctor calls his Tardis, which indeed, is another name for what this living, evolving, machine, is: a reflection of who he is which in turn explains everything the program is, and what the writing attempts to do.

In the end, I suppose this post, this program are like life, which had been the tomb of his virtue and of his honour, is but a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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